Cops on TV, Part Two: When Entertainment Becomes Evidence
On February 1, 2011, two bald, white Broward Sheriff's deputies were talking to Devin Matthews, a 32-year-old black man, as he stood on his front yard. Detective Andrea Penoyer, a beautiful blond woman in tactical armor, strode over to meet them. As she arrived, one of the deputies suddenly reached behind Matthews' shoulders and tried to shove him down to the ground. Matthews resisted and stood up. Penoyer ran over and shouted, "He just threw --" and grabbed his right arm. She and another deputy pulled his arms out as the third deputy stood behind him and fired his Taser. Once Matthews was on the ground on his stomach, they ran a couple of audible jolts through him.
Once Matthews was subdued on the ground, saying he hadn't done anything wrong by standing in his yard, Penoyer stood over him and plucked the cigarette pack from his pocket. She told him he had been distracting the cops from arresting his neighbor on drug charges. "When we tell you to do something, do it right away," she said. "Don't argue with us."
This was all being filmed for an episode of Police Women of Broward County, the controversial TLC show that follows Penoyer and other lady deputies on the line of duty. The thing is: Intentionally or not, the deputy's first shove to subdue Matthews was timed perfectly to coincide with the arrival of Penoyer and the television cameras.
Were it not for the cameras, we wouldn't know that: Very little of this scene made it into the police report. The deputies wrote up Matthews for resisting arrest both with and without violence and noted in the report that he had his fists clenched and was about to swing at one of them. Few of the above details of the scene were reported. The arrest was never edited to go on the air.
Instead, it occupies the gray area of police-show outtakes: Is it admissible as evidence? Is it strictly entertainment, with no legal weight? And who's going to notice if it shows something different from what's on the arrest report?
Gordon Weekes, an assistant public defender in Broward County, has been requesting and reviewing footage like this for more than a dozen cases that have come through his office.
He hasn't found any smoking guns -- no cameramen getting in the way of the line of duty, no coercions to sign confessions or anything like that -- but he's looking for discrepancies between what actually happened and how the police reported it. This puts him and other defense lawyers in a strange situation: They object vociferously to shows like Police Women, saying they encourage deputies to act recklessly and sensationalize arrests, since they're paid by the TV producers as well as the sheriff's office. But the best weapon for proving that point may be the video itself.
Weekes, a soft-spoken black attorney with hair pulled back in long dreadlocks, was in court on September 27 for his client, a young boy who had been arrested for allegedly stealing cigarettes and a lighter. The arrest had been filmed for Cops, which started in Broward County and returned earlier this year to film another season.
"After reviewing the discovery and looking at all reports submitted by the state, there's no reference to any television show, recording devices, or any video taping," Weekes told the court. "We are seeking for the court to order the state to produce the unedited video footage."